MADISON - Last year at this time, most questions regarding the defensive line had something to do with replacing the then departing seniors Jason Chapman, Mike Newkirk and Matt Shaughnessy.
This time around, while losing O'Brien Schofield and Dan Moore will certainly hurt, the questions refer to the stable of young players that will be vying for a spot in the defensive line rotation.
It's obvious that J.J. Watt and Patrick Butrym will play a major role on the defensive line unit this season, but who else will step in and fill the void?
"We need to find interior defensive linemen," UW head coach Bret Bielema said in a recent UWBadgers.com interview. "It's going to be interesting to see who emerges out of that group. We're really excited about the development Patrick (Butrym) has had, but who else emerges? At end, between Louis Nzegwu[/ddb] and [db]David Gilbert, I'm anxious to see who comes up big because we have great competition going on between them."
If need be, Watt could slide into the defensive tackle position this spring. If the UW coaching staff decided to give extended looks to other players like Nzegwu, Gilbert or Brendan Kelly, Watt could join Butrym in the middle and form a formidable defensive tackle duo.
If not, the junior will likely stay outside at end, a position where Watt played exceptionally well at a year ago.
Otherwise, when camp opens this weekend, perhaps players such as Eriks Briedis, Jordan Kohout, Tyler Dippel and Ethan Hemer could open some eyes and enter the interior defensive line rotation conversation.
"Guys that will be with us in the spring here and (we'll) see exactly where they can go," Bielema said in another UWBadgers.com interview. "Another X factor on the defensive line is a guy by the name of Tyler Dippel, who we recruited and thought he was going to be an outside guy, but now he might be a little more inside.
"Ethan Hemer, who was defensive scout team player of the year has really changed his body. We're excited to see exactly how good of football he can play."
As Bielema noted, Hemer, who was impressive during practice throughout the season last fall, could be one of the players most poised to break into the rotation of Charlie Partridge's defensive line.
"I would definitely like to get in the rotation eventually," Hemer said during UW's bowl preparation in December. "But coach Partridge knows what's best for the team and defensive line. So if he feels that I'm ready, then I'm ready. I'm going to do my job and work hard to do what I have to do to put myself in what I think is the best position."
Jordan Kohout, a player that admittedly struggled adjusting to the speed of the college game, is another player to keep an eye on entering spring camp. As a highly touted defensive tackle prospect, Kohout will likely benefit from his redshirt season and use any momentum he gained when spring camp ensues.
And perhaps more than anything else, getting to learn from some quality upperclassmen in his first year on campus reaped the most benefits.
"All the older linemen are great," Kohout said last fall. "They're always talking to me if I have a question about technique, or they're always critiquing me about something. They're always there to cheer me up if I get down on myself if I had a bad play.
"They're always there for us."
So, with Watt and Butrym locks for the starting rotation at defensive line, there are two positions left to fill.
Players like Briedis, who have been in the program for a number of years, might finally make their breakthrough in spring camp.
"I've been working a lot on my footwork," Briedis said during bowl prep. "That was my main focus when I first got here because it was a little behind. I've improved that and now coach Partridge is emphasizing my striking.
"Every single snap, I'm just trying to improve."
At the other end position, most likely opposite of Watt, Gilbert and Nzegwu will likely engage in one of the more competitive position battles in all of spring football. Both players made impacts last season, particularly in passing situations.
It seems Gilbert and Nzegwu will attempt to replace the rushing prowess of Schofield from a season ago as the rush end. They are both very quick off the ball and have an ability to disrupt backfields and passing attacks with their speed.
Their battle throughout the upcoming month in spring practice will be one of the more entertaining ones to focus on.
Projected depth chart: (two-deep)
-David Gilbert, SOPH
-Louis Nzegwu, RS-JR
-J.J. Watt, RS-JR
-Brendan Kelly, RS-SOPH
-Patrick Butrym, RS-JR
-Ethan Hemer, RS-FR
-Jordan Kohout, RS-FR
-Eriks Briedis, RS-SOPH
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